Sam Magavern brings people together. As co-director of
Partnership for the Public Good (PPG), he works to bring people
with energy and good ideas to bear on the challenges facing the
city of Buffalo.
That spadework has paid off with the recent announcement that
the Open Society Foundation has chosen a coalition of Buffalo
partners to receive a $1.9 million grant to fund a series of
initiatives. The grant, one of three awarded nationwide, will be
used to address issues of justice and equity, and develop the next
generation of civic leaders. Partner organizations include PPG, the
Coalition for Economic Justice, PUSH Buffalo and
Magavern, whose teaching as an adjunct at the UB Law School
dovetails with his community work, recently talked about the grant
and its possibilities, and his work with UB law students.
Tell us about your teaching at the Law School
SM: I teach one class at the Law School every
semester. I always teach public policy, research and advocacy; the
topics change from semester to semester. Students draft policy
briefs, fact sheets and reports on issues facing Buffalo in areas
where there’s a live need for what they’re doing.
They learn about these specific issues; meet with community
people, nonprofit leaders and government staff; and then they
practice both research and writing skills, and public presentation
skills. The last class of the semester is open to the public and
the students present their work.
Is it your hope that these students go on to be activists,
wherever they land?
SM: Whatever they end up doing, they’ll use
these skills. Almost everyone’s career in the law touches on
public policy and on community involvement at one point or another.
Maybe they’ll serve on a board or a neighborhood group. Maybe
they’ll be litigating a case that has an important public
I see them volunteering in Buffalo, I see them running for
office, so a lot of them do end up using the stuff that they learn.
A lot of them are just interested in Buffalo so they really enjoy
seeing more of Buffalo, learning more about Buffalo, grappling
firsthand with Buffalo issues.
How has the Law School’s clinical program become part
of the community development process?
SM: One issue that rose up as a community priority
was economic development, in particular the Buffalo Niagara Medical
Campus. My law students last spring researched and wrote on the
medical campus, and we (PPG) used their work in forming our plan.
We edited their work on the medical campus into a report that was
an appendix to the grant application.
More broadly, over the years my students have researched and
written a lot on poverty, equality, local government and economic
development issues, and have built up our working body of
knowledge. Our website is our library, and it’s got literally
hundreds of things that UB law students have produced.
It’s fun as you start to see people using the work. I had
one student who created a piece on poverty while she was at the Law
School with me, and after law school she worked at the Homeless
Alliance of Western New York and had to review funding applications
from nonprofits, and one of the applicants cited her work in their
application. Another student in my class wrote a piece about
development of the Outer Harbor; he was looking for a chance to do
some pro bono work, and I linked him up with one of our partner
organizations, Citizens for a 21 Century Park, which is trying to
get an Olmsted-style park on the Outer Harbor, and he became an
advocate for this park.
The law faculty has been very supportive of the work of PPG, and
also of these various nonprofits in the effort that resulted in
this grant. Whether it’s the Affordable Housing Clinic
working with PUSH on new housing development and policy, or the
Community Economic Development Clinic working on living wage
issues, there’s been a lot of Law School involvement in many
of these organizations and projects that has sown the seeds for
what we’re doing today.
The grant is for $1.9 million over two years. Is it then
SM: The first chunk is two years but with a very
high expectation of a third year, and then after that at least a
very live possibility of up to 10. We’re really excited with
the network and the knowledge that Open Society brings.
They’ve been running a similar effort in Baltimore, and the
lead at the Baltimore office is also the lead of this initiative.
So we’ll get to learn a lot from her and then from our fellow
grantees in San Diego and Puerto Rico.
The Open Places Initiative “aims to increase the
ability of communities to work together to secure greater justice
and opportunity for their residents.” How might this happen
SM: What they’re looking for is systems
change. They’re looking for the ability of cities or metro
regions to make better policy that results in equality and justice
and democratic practice for the residents. They see both a capacity
gap, where cities don’t have as much capacity as they should
to do this work, and they also see a lot of potential because in
some ways cities are a lot more fertile ground for that work than
state or federal government.
We felt like Buffalo fit that situation to a T. We see a lot of
potential for better policy that isn’t happening, in some
cases just for lack of capacity. People don’t have the time
or resources to do that research, to do the community organizing
that result in good public policy.
Talk about the initial program goals of the grant. First,
“high road” economic development.
SM: High road economic development means policies
and projects that produce benefits for the whole community, rather
than just increase the wealth of the developers. It refers to
practices that create quality jobs with good pay and benefits,
create jobs specifically for disadvantaged residents and projects
for minorities and women — projects that are green and
ecologically sound, projects that reward local business and not
just national and multinational chains.
Next, a program of restorative justice.
SM: Restorative justice is an alternative justice
process. The public schools are interested in using it to reduce
out-of-school suspensions. There’s something that has often
been described as the school-to-prison pipeline, where school
discipline and out-of-school suspensions lead to alienation from
the school process, bad educational outcomes, involvement in
criminal activity, and kids end up in jails and prisons. By using a
process up front that tries to get at the root of the problem and
tries to keep the kids within the school community rather than
sending them away, that’s much more effective for everybody:
for the victim, for the offender, for the community as a whole.
We’ve also found some enthusiasm among judges and parole
officers for using this for low-level cases that really don’t
belong in court. They waste everyone’s time, it’s very
expensive and it gives people criminal records that then prevent
them from finding a job, renting an apartment — a whole host
of collateral damage takes place.
And an initiative on worker equity.
SM: This is about improving conditions for low-wage
workers, with a focus on temp work and contingent work and a focus
on refugees, minorities and youth. Contingent means, for example,
you’re working directly for an employer but there’s no
guarantee you’re going to be there next month. You’re
brought on for a week or two weeks at a time, or you find out your
hours Sunday night and some weeks you get 30 and some weeks you get
two. It’s really mushroomed in the United States, especially
after the Great Recession; a huge percentage of the jobs that have
been added are part time, temp or contingent.
In addition, the grant envisions “building civic
capacity.” What’s that?
SM: We’ve chosen four capacity areas:
grassroots leadership development; a mobile democracy center that
will go to events, community centers and street corners and get
people involved in civic life; an innovation lab, which is the
research analysis piece; and an arts network, getting artists more
involved in these issues in a more coordinated way.
Why tackle all these issues at once?
SM: This is really about building community in a
long-term, intensive way, and so it can’t be just about one
issue. Another reason is the way the issues interact and relate to
one another. For example, restorative justice has important
implications for worker equity and high road economic development
because if the kids aren’t graduating from high school or are
getting into that school-to-prison pipeline, then where are the
workers going to be for the economic development that we want?
There are very sharp limits to what you can do at the local
level because so much of what happens at the local level is really
determined at the national or even an international level. You
can’t do everything. But there’s that great Louis
Brandeis line that says the laboratories of democracy are the
cities. There is real value to trying things out at a local level
if you want national and international change.